A First Grader with Big Dreams

I am a substitute teacher’s assistant for my hometown school district.  One of the positives of my position is having a variety of assignments.  My favorites are special education and physical education (P.E.).  Depending on where I am and what kind of day the kids are having, it can be an uneventful day or it can be a six-ring circus.
Not too long ago I subbed for a P.E. aide for just one afternoon.  I honestly had FUN!  I didn’t mind the noise so much in the gym because I had something that occupied both my mind and body.  I got to play one of my favorite all-time games, tetherball.  My first competition was with a 4th-grade sweet young lady.  We didn’t keep score which was fine by me.  She was a novice and I was out of tether practice.  I did engage a 6th grader boy near the end of P.E.  I kept hoping the coach would blow the whistle for the kids to line up but wouldn’t you know it?  She blew just seconds after I threw in the towel.  He was a gentleman since he shook my hand afterward and said, “good game”.  That’s not behavior I’ve often seen from sixth graders.

In the midst of numerous activities going on in the gym, a handsome 1st grader was showing off his dancing skills to the P.E. coach.  I joined them and continued watching after the coach left since the music hadn’t stopped and neither had the blond headed cute-as-he-could-be 1st grader.  I felt compelled to keep cheering him on until the music stopped.  At the end of class, the boy came up to me and told me that when he dances, his brain is going like crazy.  He was so enthusiastic about dancing with his eyes as big as saucers when talking about it.  I told him he was a such a good dancer that I could see him one day making an appearance on “Dancing With The Stars”. 

At the end of the school day, I was packing up in the coach’s office and this youngster came up to the door.  He softly says, “It was nice meeting you.”  Oh, my heart did flip-flops.  I leaned down and shook his hand.  He gave me a high-five.  I told him again, “You’re a good dancer.  Don’t stop practicing!”  He nodded with a Texas-sized smile, promised he wouldn’t, and walked away. 
Such moments in a school day don’t happen often, but when they do, my job is worth more than words can say.
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Dyspraxia and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

According to the United Kingdom’s Dyspraxia Foundation:

Although Dyspraxia may occur in isolation, it frequently coexists with other conditions such as Aspergers Syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), Dyslexia, language disorders and social, emotional and behavioural impairments.

Those of us who have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have a marked difficulty with social relationships, social communication/language skills and imagination. These difficulties are often accompanied by repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests. We who have Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), a subtype of Autism, are at the higher end of the autism spectrum and have difficulty with the non-verbal aspects of social communication such as gesture and facial expression. We also have difficulty adjusting our language and behavior to different social situations.

Some of us struggle with motor skills.  In theory a formal diagnosis of dyspraxia should not be made if a child has a “pervasive developmental disorder” (including autism). However in reality children are sometimes given both diagnoses, especially if their motor coordination is significantly affected. Where the autism is severe this should be given as the main diagnosis.

Most with AS and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) have a history of delayed acquisition of motor skills (e.g., hand writing, pedaling a bike, tying shoe laces, catching a ball, opening jars, climbing monkey-bars, etc.), which is called “motor clumsiness.” This statement brings back many a childhood memory of learning later than my peers of how to tie my shoes. When I finally did, it was a crowning achievement and goodbye to just wearing shoes with no ties.  As for monkey bars, I was never caught near them.  Now that I am approaching the age of 60, I wouldn’t enter a contest of being the quickest in “opening jars” since my odds of winning would be slim and embarrassment high!

Dyspraxia is a disorder that affects motor skill development. AS and HFA children with Dyspraxia have trouble planning and completing fine motor tasks. This can vary from simple motor tasks (e.g., waving goodbye) to more complex tasks (e.g., brushing teeth). Dyspraxia is a lifelong disorder, and its severity and symptoms can vary from child to child. Also, it can affect individuals differently at different stages of life. Dyspraxia can affect many basic functions required for daily living, and is often broken down into the following categories:

  • Constructional Dyspraxia (i.e., establishing spatial relationships, being able to accurately position or move objects from one place to another)
  • Ideational Dyspraxia (i.e., multi-step tasks such as brushing teeth, making a bed, putting clothes on in order, buttoning and buckling)
  • Ideomotor Dyspraxia (i.e., completing single-step motor tasks like combing hair and waving goodbye)
  • Oromotor Dyspraxia (i.e., coordinating the muscle movements needed to pronounce words)

Dyspraxia often exists along with learning disabilities (e.g., dyslexia, dyscalculia, ADHD, and other conditions that impact learning). Weaknesses in comprehension, information processing and listening can contribute to the difficulties experienced by children with Dyspraxia. These young people may also have low self-esteem, depression and other emotional and behavioral issues.

AS and HFA kids with Dyspraxia may experience several difficulties.

Younger kids have problems with:

  • Being sensitive to touch (e.g., being irritated by clothing on skin, hair brushing, nail-cutting, or teeth-brushing)
  • Bumping into things
  • Establishing left- or right- handedness
  • Learning to walk, jump, hop, skip and throw or catch a ball
  • Moving the eyes—instead, moving the whole head
  • Pronouncing words and being understood

School-aged kids have problems with:

  • Doing activities that require fine motor skills (e.g., holding a pencil, buttoning, cutting with scissors)
  • Phobias and obsessive behavior
  • Playing sports, riding a bike and other activities requiring coordination
  • Poor pencil grip and letter formation and slow handwriting
  • Sensing direction
  • Speaking at a normal rate or in way that can be easily understood

Teens have problems with:

  • Clumsiness
  • Cooking or other household chores
  • Driving
  • Over- or under- sensitivity to light, touch, space, taste, or smells
  • Personal grooming and other self-help activities
  • Speech control (i.e., volume, pitch, articulation)
  • Writing and typing

Early identification and intervention can greatly help an AS or HFA child with Dyspraxia. Depending on the severity of the disorder, therapy from occupational, speech and physical therapists can improve the child’s ability to function and succeed independently.